Australia’s laws regulating prostitution are a tangled knot of inconsistencies, from one end of the country to the other.
From Queensland, which has what’s described as a “labyrinth of complex laws that are tightly regulated by police,” to Western Australia, which has few regulations and is mostly governed by local planning laws.
But in both jurisdictions there seems to be a growing appetite for reform.
An in-depth investigation by journalist Kate Emery published in The West Australian on the weekend, revealed hopes that proposed changes to Victorian prostitution laws will prompt a reworking of WA’s.
Attempts to overhaul the state’s prostitution regulation framework has been notoriously fraught with political difficulty.
Prostitution has never been illegal in WA, and for most of the 20th century, WA’s sex industry was controlled by police who maintained what they called a “containment policy”. It meant that police allowed the operation of eight brothels and three escort agencies. But “living off the proceeds of a brothel” was still a crime.
The Court Government enacted the Prostitution Act 2000, which mostly dealt with public concerns about street soliciting and offences involving children. After the WA Police Commissioner abandoned the containment policy in 2000, there have been several failed attempts to reform the industry. The Labor government tried in 2003, but didn’t get support in the state’s Upper House so abandoned attempts.
Now the industry is mostly regulated by local planning laws, when it’s regulated at all.
The West Australian found “a mass of contradictions and a wellspring of frustration” about WA’s laws. Not only are there some who want a “Nordic model” of regulation, but also those demanding tougher laws to crack down on unregulated brothels operating in the suburbs near schools and churches.
It also reported a lack of willingness on the part of the current state government for reform.
A government spokeswoman told The West Australian that prostitution law reform was “not part of the McGowan Government’s agenda”.
“Over the past 15 years, several Bills have been introduced ... attempting to amend WA legislation relating to sex work, without success,” she said.
Queensland’s Labor government however, has referred the state’s sex work legislation to the Queensland Law Reform Commission.
Queensland Attorney General Shannon Fentiman said most prostitution happened illegally and a proper regulatory framework was needed to keep women in the industry and the community safe.
“It’s really important that workers in Queensland, no matter what industry they’re in, don’t have to choose between working safely and working legally,” she said.
In Victoria, the Andrews Government has released its proposed legislative reforms for public consultation, which closed on August 27. The proposal would mean the full decriminalisation of prostitution in Victoria, meaning that women’s bodies can be bought and sold with impunity and the sexual abuse of women is legitimised as “work”.
The Daniel Andrews plan, derived from a review headed by controversial MP Fiona Patten – a former member of the Australian Sex Party, would be to effectively deregulate the entire industry.
And this is the tenor of the push from across the country, including the latest reports.
However, the experience overseas and from jurisdictions in Australia that have decriminalised prostitution demonstrates that if anything, this course of action makes the industry even more dangerous for prostitutes, and empowers and enriches pimps and brothel owners.
We restate our position, along with other advocates and sex trade survivors, in calling for the Nordic legislative model, which recognises the inherently violent and exploitative nature of prostitution, addresses demand by criminalising the buyer only, and provides exiting services for women who want to escape the industry.
Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.
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